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Historically informed performance (also referred to as period performance, authentic performance, or Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIPP)) is an approach, or movement, in the performance of classical music. Members of this movement usually play on period instrument, and utilise historical treatises, as well as additional historical evidence, to gain insight into performance practice (the stylistic and technical aspects of performance). Historically informed performance might have originated in the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, but has come to encompass music from the Classical and Romantic eras as well.

Traditional musical practice

Most historically informed performance artists advocate the practice as a way of achieving more artistically effective performances of music that predates the modern era. They claim that the gradual changes in the construction of instruments and in the training of musicians have produced instruments and styles that are optimal for (roughly) mid- to late-19th-century music, but not for older work.

Musical students have, over the centuries, learned ways of playing and interpreting music from their teachers, and from performers that they heard. As a result, changes in performance practice made by prominent musicians often reverberated in the playing of many other musicians, so that performance practice evolved, and the same pieces were played differently as time went by. The historically informed performance movement replaces this method of learning with historical scholarship, covering both instruments and performance practice, in order to obtain a more direct view of original performance practices. Such scholarship is the work of both the performers themselves and of non-performing specialist scholars.

It is important to mention that adherence to principles of historically informed performance is not an all-or-nothing matter. Many traditional musicians are deeply interested in what scholarship can teach them of performance practices in the composer's time. Moreover, modern instruments can be played in ways that approximate what may have been achieved on instruments of the composer's era.

Early instruments

Many instruments were superseded by newer instruments at the beginning of the Classical era. Others were greatly altered in their sound quality and playing characteristics during the 19th century. In either case, when older instruments, or reconstructed versions of them, are used, they are usually referred to as original instruments, authentic instruments, or period instruments. The discussion below (see also Organology) covers instruments that had to be revived entirely, followed by instruments whose earlier form was rediscovered. See also List of period instruments.


Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord, (Paris, Musée de la Musique)
Among keyboard instruments, the most dramatic disappearance was that of the Harpsichord, which gradually went out of style during the second half of the 18th century. The Fortepiano became more popular by such a degree that harpsichords were destroyed; indeed, the Paris Conservatory is notorious for having used harpsichords for firewood during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times. Composers such as François Couperin, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ, or sometimes for a generic "keyboard" (German Klavier), but not for the Fortepiano, which was invented around 1700, but only widely adopted at about 1765. The music by these composers sounds very different, and requires a different interpretive approach, when played on the harpsichord rather than on the piano. Notably, since every note on a harpsichord is equally loud, subtle variations of timing and articulation, as well as a judicious use of ornamentation, are employed to achieve an expressive harpsichord performance.

The harpsichord was reintroduced to the concert-going public in the first half of the 20th century by Wanda Landowska. Since most knowledge of harpsichord construction had been lost by that time, Landowska needed to use a harpsichord made for her by the Pleyel company of Paris, and based on the modern grand piano. From the 1950s on, harpsichord builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck began to follow the procedures of the early harpsichord builders. Today, harpsichords in the style of the old makers are produced in workshops around the world.


The viols (also known as viola da gamba) are a family of bowed (and sometimes plucked), fretted stringed instruments that evolved from the Spanish plucked vihuela in the late 15th century. The bass viol roughly resembles a six-stringed, fretted cello, but is actually a bowed vihuela tuned in fourths (with a third between the third and fourth strings). All viols were strung and fretted with gut ; the frets are moveable to allow for tuning adjustments. The viols' voice is generally described as being delicate, humming, and sweet – nobler and richly resonant in the lower registers – and often "reedy" like an oboe or an organ's upper range (more akin to the voices of the modern cello and viola than that of the violin). Their tone can sometimes have a certain "nasal" quality.

A vast quantity of music for viols, for both ensemble and solo performance, was written by composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Diego Ortiz, Claudio Monteverdi, William Byrd, William Lawes, Henry Purcell, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, J.S. Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, and Carl Frederick Abel. However, viols were largely abandoned by the end of the 18th century, having been overtaken by the violin family.

Many composers wrote complex polyphonic part music (early chamber music) for viol consort, an ensemble of differently sized viols (typically held vertically) with a varying number of viols in it.

From largest to smallest, the viol family consists of:
  • contrabass or violone
  • bass viol (about the size of a cello)
  • tenor viol (about the size of a guitar)
  • alto viol (about the size of a viola)
  • treble or descant viol (about the size of a violin).

In England, slightly smaller specialized bass viols were developed, called division viols, and lyra-viols.

Among the foremost modern players of the viols are Paolo Pandolfo, Wieland Kuijken, Jordi Savall, John Hsu, Vittorio Ghielmi, and Guido Balestracci. There are many modern viol consorts including Fretwork.


The recorder is an end-blown flute of the fipple flute or internal duct flute type, originally made of wood but today often manufactured from plastics and other materials. Its tone is similar to that of the modern concert flute, but generally has a mellower, rounder tone. Like viols, recorders are made in multiple sizes (contra-bass, bass, tenor, alto, soprano, the sopranino, and the even smaller kleine sopranino or garklein), and are often played in consorts of mixed size. Handel and Telemann, among others, wrote a large body of solo works for the recorder. For a number of important modern exponents of the recorder, see Recorder player.

Other instruments

Other instruments that declined in use around the same time as the harpsichord, viol, and recorder include the lute, the viola d'amore, and the baryton. Instruments that lost currency rather earlier include the cornett, the shawm, the rackett, the crumhorn, the theorbo, and the hurdy-gurdy.

Other instruments, such as the serpent, did not lose favor until quite late in the 19th century.

Developed instruments

Even the instruments on which classical music is ordinarily performed today have undergone many changes since the 18th century, both in how they are constructed and how they are played.

Stringed instruments (the violin, viola, cello, and double bass) were made with progressively longer necks and higher bridges, generally increasing string length and tension, although the latter can vary widely depending on the gauge (or thickness) of the strings used. The most prized stringed instruments of today, made by Antonio Stradivari and by the Guarneri family in 17th- and 18th-century Italy, began their careers as what we might call "early instruments," but were modified in the 19th century to achieve the more powerful romantic sound. (See baroque violin)

From the heavy rigging of the early to mid 1800s, the tendency shifted to using lighter strings for an easier playing technique and more soloistic brilliance. From around 1900 until our times, the average string tension has been lighter than in most Baroque traditions except for 18th century France, but the longer strings and the more compact material (including, in our days, steel E strings) has led to a more brilliant and short-range penetrating tone with a greater acoustical emphasis on the even overtones.

In modern string playing, a more or less constant vibrato is the norm, with lack of vibrato used as a special expressive effect. In the 18th century, it was just the opposite, with vibrato serving as an ornament.

The oboe likewise became more powerful in its sound. The baroque oboe was more pastoral or reedy in tone while the Classical oboe, which came to the fore around 1780, was more clear or silvery. A similar difference is found between the early and modern bassoon.

The flute of the 18th century was typically made of wood rather than metal, and likewise had a gentler, more woody tone.

Early brass instruments were less powerful, but more colorful (containing more overtones) than their modern equivalents. However, the playing of early trumpets and French horns was very different, and indeed much more difficult, since these instruments did not incorporate keys or valves until the late 18th century. The players of early trumpets and horns used lip control to a much greater degree to determine pitch; the pitch of early horns was also altered by the placement of the player's hand in the bell, a technique known as hand-stopping. The early trombone, or sackbut, differs little in construction from modern instruments, the salient difference in being the smaller size of the tubes and bell of the older instruments.

The effect of these instruments in their original form is particularly noticeable when they are played together in orchestras, since not only do the musical lines sound different, but their relationships to one another is altered by the difference in relative volume (wind instruments generally being louder relative to the strings). A number of historically informed performance orchestras have achieved a broad following.

For the piano, the difference between 18th-century and modern versions is probably greater than for any other instrument ; for discussion of these differences and their consequences for performance, see Piano history and musical performance. The construction of replica 18th-century pianos came somewhat after the revival of the baroque harpsichord, but used many of the same skills, since early pianos resembled harpsichords in their construction. Leading modern-day performers on the early piano or fortepiano include Malcolm Bilson, Robert D. Levin, and Melvyn Tan.


The human voice is a biological given, but can be trained in different ways. Singers in historically informed performances typically aim at a less loud tone, usually with less vibrato. Singing more quietly is feasible because accompanying instruments are generally also softer. Early music listeners seldom complain that the singers are "shrieking" or "barking" , though this does not exclude the possibility of other vocal problems. A few of the singers who have contributed to the historically informed performance movement are Emma Kirkby, Julianne Baird, Nigel Rogers, and David Thomas.

Historically informed performances sometimes use male singers, called countertenors, to sing alto parts. Although it is often a vexed question how often this was done in early performance, a number of countertenors have won acclaim for their purity of tone, vocal agility, and interpretive skill. Modern countertenor singing was pioneered by Alfred Deller, and leading contemporary performers include David Daniels, Derek Lee Ragin, Andreas Scholl, Michael Chance, Drew Minter, Daniel Taylor, and Brian Asawa.

Compositions intended to be sung by castrati present a problem. The 1994 movie Farinelli: Il Castrato, about an 18th-century castrato, used digital effects to create the voice by mixing the sound of a countertenor with a soprano singer.

Boy sopranos in choirs are not uncommon, even in traditional performances, but the use of boy sopranos as soloists is rare. Most notably, much of the music of Bach that Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt recorded made use of boy sopranos even for the solo parts.


Kantorei in historic layout
Historic pictures , layout sketches and sources are giving information about the layout of singers and instruments. Three main layouts are documented:
  • Circle (Renaissance)
  • Choir in the front of the instruments (17th–19th century)
  • Singers and instruments next to each other on the choir loft.

Johann Mattheson: "The singers must stand alltime in front" .

see also String section

Recovering early performance practices

Both pedagogical works and the correspondence of musicians from past centuries play an important role in recovering information about early performance practice. Representative of the works from which valuable information has been obtained are the following:

Among the letters of musicians, those of Mozart are notable for their liveliness and insight, and from them considerable information about performances of his work is obtained. In the case of Haydn and Beethoven we have the advantage that they became very famous—in fact, venerated—in their own lifetimes, and many people with whom they conversed attempted to remember and write down their words.

implying of course that symphonies were often performed with no rehearsal at all. Likewise, there is testimony that the task of keeping early instruments in tune was difficult and perhaps also neglected.

Interpreting musical notation

One area in which scholarly interpretation is important is in interpreting the musical notation of the past, which becomes progressively less explicit as one goes back in time. Some familiar difficult items are as follows:

  • Early composers apparently often wrote dotted rhythms (where the first of two notes is three times the length of the second) to mean instead a time ratio of 2 + 1, in a context where triplets are present elsewhere in the musical line. The opening line of the last movement of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #5 is a good example.
  • In a French overture, it is often held that dotted notation was meant to indicate double dotting; that is, a duration ratio of 7 to 1 instead of 3 to 1. Two well-known examples are the overtures to Handel's Messiah, and the Suite in F of Water Music: both often played in the double-dotted manner by historically informed performance specialists.
  • Particularly in French Baroque music, but also in Classical and Romantic repertoire, music written in even rhythm is sometimes performed rather as if the notes were dotted or in triplets, in a practice known as notes inégales and similar to the swing feel of jazz.
  • What is written as an appoggiatura is often meant to be longer or shorter than the notated length. This convention is pervasive in Mozart's music.
  • In Renaissance music, musica ficta are employed; these are accidentals (sharps and flats) not written in the score, but rather inferred using the performer's judgment or via rules laid down by theorists.
  • Lastly, the notes of earlier music cannot generally be interpreted as designating the same pitch that they do today, since concert pitch has frequently changed. For discussion, see History of pitch standards in Western music.

Mechanical music

Some information about how music sounded in the past can be obtained from contemporary mechanical instruments. For instance, the Dutch museum Van Speelklok tot Pierementmarker owns an 18th century mechanical organ of which the music programme was composed and supervised by Joseph Haydn.

Issues of pronunciation even carry over to church Latin, the language in which a huge amount of early music was written. The reason is that Latin was customarily pronounced using the speech sounds and patterns of the local vernacular language; see Latin regional pronunciation.

Tuning and pitch

Twelve tone equal temperament is the predominant tuning today, but was not so in the past. The uncomfortably large major thirds of Pythagorean tuning are advocated by the Hilliard Ensemble and others for mediaeval music, where this interval is not treated as consonant. Around the Renaissance the small pure thirds of meantone tunings became the norm, though many early organists (such as Arnolt Schlick) already stretched thirds falling on the black keys of the keyboard. In the 18c, circulating temperaments in which all keys are usable gained ascendancy, famously in Bach's Wohltemperite Clavier.

For many periods pitch has varied regionally as well as over time. Key signatures of more than one flat are rare before c. 1600, but keyboard accompanists were trained in the chiavette system of substituting clefs to transpose and is seems likely that choirs commonly sang at any convenient pitch. A common practice among editors of English choral music has been to transpose the music a minor third higher, based on a surviving organ pipe ; this just happens to help out mixed choirs.

Two coexisting standards are described by Praetorius: the Chorton (Choir pitch) and the higher Cornetton (cornetto pitch); a much lower Kammerton (chamber pitch) was especially favored by late 17c French woodwind builders. J. S. Bach thus frequently writes transposing parts for organ and even strings, and one sees in the old Bach Gesellschaft the pitches of the original score, with the oboes and recorders (in bwv 106, notoriously ) assigned notes lower than their normal ranges. The baroque oboist Bruce Haynes has extensively investigated surviving wind instruments and even documented a case of violinists having to retune by a minor third to play at neighboring churches.

Historically informed performances of Baroque music are usually in unequal temperaments and at a "chamber pitch" defined by A = 415 (i.e. a semitone down compared to modern A440 concert pitch), a compromise between varying historical pitch standards that is convenient for keyboard players who also play with modern instruments. Some performers adopt an even lower pitch of A = 385; this is close to the Paris Opera's standard. A = 430 has become the standard for modern original instrument bands specializing in the classical period.


The perceived aesthetic benefits of historically informed performance vary with what kind of music is being played. In rough terms, they can be characterized as follows.

  • Historically informed performance is argued to achieve greater transparency of musical texture. The instruments have a less powerful tone, so that the playing of one note interferes less with the hearing of simultaneous or neighboring notes.
  • In orchestral performances, contrast in volume levels is typically increased: the contributions of the brass instruments and timpani stand out more, since the difference in volume level between brass and strings is somewhat greater than with modern instruments.
  • Greater transparency and greater contrast in volume levels lend themselves, in turn, to greater rhythmic energy.
  • Many listeners appreciate the timbre of authentic instruments, finding it more beautiful and filled with character than what is heard from modern instruments. The same could be said of the human voice, when it is not required to compete with modern instruments in power.

Variety of opinion

Opinions on the historically informed performance movement vary widely, from very strong support to very strong opposition.

To the extent that it derives its authority from the "composer's original intentions," the historically informed performance debate has been disputed on several grounds: (1) It is impossible to know for sure what a composer intended; (2) It is erroneous to believe that a composer always had specific intentions about the things over which the authenticity debate is usually waged (e.g. tempo markings, instrumentation, or interpretive decisions); (3) Even when we have reasonable evidence that a composer had a specific intention about an aspect of a piece, it has often been the case that this intention is different from (and in some cases directly contradictory to) the practice that authenticists claim to be "authentic"; (4) Even if it were possible to know a composer's intention, it is not self-evident that adherence to that intention is, in itself, a virtue. Also, it cannot be known that the composer would not have welcomed the 'improvements' made to the tone and characteristics of instruments after their time.

Equally skeptical was the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, himself one of the great pioneers (in company with the builder Frank Hubbard) of the authentic harpsichord's revival. Though championing the need (for example in his editorship of Scarlatti sonatas) for a thoroughly-informed approach, not least in understanding as fully as possible a composer's actual wishes and intentions in their historical context, he found it necessary to write "too often historical authenticity can be used as a means of escape from any potentially disquieting observance of esthetic values, and from the assumption of any genuine artistic responsibility. The abdication of esthetic values and artistic responsibilities can confer a certain illusion of simplicity on what the passage of history has presented to us, bleached as white as bones on the sands of time." (Interpreting Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Yale 1984)

Virgil Fox was more blunt: "There is current in our land (and several European countries) at this moment a kind of nitpicking worship of historic impotence. They say that Bach must not be interpreted and that he must have no emotion, that his notes speak for themselves. You want to know what that is? Pure unadulterated rot! Bach has the red blood. He has the communion with the people. He has all of this amazing spirit. And imagine that you could put all the music on one side of the agenda with his great interpretation and great feeling and put the greatest man of all right up on top of a dusty shelf underneath some glass case in a museum and say that he must not be interpreted! They're full of you-know-what and they're so untalented that they have to hide behind this thing because they couldn't get in the house of music any other way!"

American musicologist and Renaissance choral music conductor Richard Taruskin also discusses flaws in the case for historically informed performance in his 1995 collection of articles, Text and Act.

Also, some listeners who have absolute pitch are disturbed by the fact that historically informed performances often use a lower pitch than traditional performances (415 Hz vs 440 Hz). And some players and ensembles adopt yet another pitch, for example 390 Hz for early baroque music or 430 Hz to play Mozart's or Beethoven's music, which makes the whole situation even more confusing for those people.

See also


  1. Making Way for Beautiful Music
  2. Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
  3. Johann Mattheson: Der vollkommene Kapellmeister
  4. Pitch Standards in the Baroque and Classical Periods (diss., U. of Montreal, 1995)


  • Arnold Dolmetsch, The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries Revealed by Contemporary Evidence, London: Novello, 1915. The book that started it all.
  • Thurston Dart. The Interpretation of Music. London: Hutchinson and Co, 1954.
  • Robert Donington. The Interpretation of Early Music, London: Faber and Faber, 1963. Covered much the same ground as Dolmetsch, but updated by 50 years of further discovery.
  • Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (1997). "The good, the bad and the boring", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816540-4.
  • Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making by Frank Hubbard (1965; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-88845-6) is a classic tale of scholarly detective work, both with old instruments and old written sources, that led to the rediscovery of how the old harpsichords were built.
  • Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. ISBN 0801430461. Kivy's book explains that the debate about authentic performance generally fails to distinguish between four distinct kinds of authenticity.
  • Andrew Parrott. The Essential Bach Choir. The Boydell Press, 2000. ISBN 0-85115-786-6. An analysis of how the musicians available to Bach in Leipzig were likely to have been used in practice.
  • Charles Rosen's discussion of historically informed performance may be found in Chapter 12 of his book Critical Entertainments (2000; Cambridge: Harvard University Press; ISBN 0-674-00684-4). This chapter contains the full version of the quotation above concerning tuning, which is from the French critic Charles de Saint-Evremond.
  • The quotation above from Joseph Haydn about the necessity of at least one rehearsal is taken from p. 145 of Rosen's book The Classical Style (2nd ed., 1997; New York: Norton; ISBN 0-393-31712-9).
  • Paul Badura-Skoda. Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard. (English Translation) Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-816576-5. Challenges many ideas that have been taken as granted since Dolmetsch.
  • Nicholas Kenyon (editor). Authenticity and Early Music, Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-19-816152-2. The proceedings of a symposium in which various approaches to "authenticity" were criticised – essential reading.

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